Hurricane Dorian, the strongest tropical cyclone to ever to hit the Bahamas, impacted the islands with hurricane-force winds from September 1 to 3 this year. Dorian was a Category 5 storm with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, the strongest of which affected the northern Bahamian islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco along with several smaller nearby islands. Nassau, Bahamas’ capital city, was spared from the most devastating winds despite having the greatest exposure in the country. Still, the impact across the islands was extreme – especially the devastating scale of lives lost.
Considering the Bahamas’ vulnerable location (southeast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean), its hurricane risk is severe, and the island is still suffering losses from hurricanes Joaquin (2016), Matthew (2016) and Irma (2017). According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the losses from these three hurricane events totaled $750 million. If the losses from Dorian equal or exceed those from Matthew, the total hurricane losses over five hurricane seasons (2015-2019) will exceed $1.3 billion – more than 10% of the $12 billion gross domestic products of the Bahamas. The damage from Dorian was extreme and the reconnaissance and rebuilding is ongoing.
According to research, Dorian was not an abnormal storm for the area. A summary review of hurricanes in the Atlantic basin since 1900 identifies 23 storms that likely produced Category 3 (or stronger) winds on one or more of the Bahamian islands, while eight storms likely produced Category 4 winds or stronger. Hurricane winds vary by location as the storm traverses the region, sometimes making it difficult to analyze affected areas. To help alleviate this challenge it’s useful to look at areas where the population was greatly affected in order to pinpoint wind strength. Evaluating the wind field of Dorian against the population of the Bahamas helps us determine how broadly the impacts are felt throughout the island. Tropical storm-force winds affected most of the populace, with about 25% of the population experiencing major (Category 3 or higher) hurricane strength winds.
Comparing the breadth of Dorian to Matthew helps us understand the damaging effects of Dorian. Both stand out as the strongest storms in the last few years. While the former hurricane impacted the Bahamian populace with the strongest winds, Matthew affected a larger populace. And while the damage from Matthew was more widespread, Dorian’s damage to the Abaco and Grand islands was more severe.
Insurance regulators in the Bahamas report spending $360 million in general insurance due to Dorian’s impact – 67% ($240 million) being property insurance that likely covers hurricane wind damage. If the losses for Dorian approach the IDB’s level for Matthew, the five-year, $1.3 billion cumulative damages in hurricane losses implies either underpriced insurance or a significant level of underinsurance.
The islands impacted by Dorian are isolated – Freeport is 125 miles northeast of Nassau while Marsh Harbour is 100 miles northwest from the capital. Isolation may increase reconstruction costs compared with other natural disasters. We’ve seen this most recently with California wildfires this year. Excluding the recoveries from insurance payouts, the increased costs can lead to shortfalls during reconstruction, which can lead to a prolonged recovery period and out-migration.
The Bahamas is being restored with significant international assistance. Community resilience has been defined as a measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand and recover from adverse situations.
The frequency of hurricane winds in the Bahamas promotes the case for strengthening infrastructure for both residential and commercial structures. But the severity of the island’s losses is a strong case for reconstruction capital – a need usually covered by insurance. This is a lesson that can be translated to communities in the United States and elsewhere, especially as we see increasing losses from the perils of natural disaster.
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 Wright, A. “Development Challenges in the Bahamas”. Inter-American Development Bank Policy Brief IDB-PB- 276, May 2018.
 IMF 2019. Purchasing Power Parity, international dollars